Saint Jack

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Saint Jack (1979) is the first of two films that director Peter Bogdanovich made with actor Ben Gazzara. And like their second collaboration, They All Laughed (1981), Saint Jack has drifted into relative obscurity as a hidden gem in Bogdanovich’s varied filmography. By the time Bogdanovich began this working relationship with Gazzara the fame and fortune of The Last Picture Show (1971) had begun to wane. As a result the financing for Saint Jack came from Roger Corman’s New World Pictures and Hugh Hefner’s Playboy.

Despite these origins, Saint Jack has none of the sleaze associated with its producers. In fact Bogdanovich’s adaptation of Paul Theroux’s novel of the same name is primarily concerned with its portrait of Gazzara’s titular character rather than any spectacle of sex or nudity. For Bogdanovich Saint Jack was to be his The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie (1976); a vehicle for Gazzara that functions as an ode to tough guy charm, resourcefulness, and the pursuit of a singular ambition. But where Gazzara’s tragic misadventure in The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie served as a metaphor for John Cassavetes’ own struggle to make his films independently, Bogdanovich’s Saint Jack is a reimagining of a classic Hollywood motif.

Theroux’s Jack Flowers (Gazzara) is a Rick Blaine or Geoff Carter for the post-colonial age of the Vietnam War. Bogdanovich shoots Gazzara the way Hawks shot Cary Grant with the actor pushing the boundaries of the frame and seemingly dictating the directions the camera moves. But with his cigar firmly pressed between his lips, and his soft eyes doing all the emoting Gazzara is more like Bogart. Flowers, Blaine, and Carter are all men living outside of the Western world in cultures that are reluctant to have them. But Flowers isn’t as tough or romantic as the other two. Flowers is pragmatic, sensitive, and often caught up in other people’s problems.

Saint Jack follows Flowers through three years of scraping by in Singapore as he attempts to open a cathouse, fails, then throws in with the United States government. In painting a portrait of Jack Flowers Bogdanovich creates a picture of the toll that the Vietnam war had on neighboring countries. The American forces essentially replace the British as the dominant Western cultural force as the war drags on. Flowers in his attempts to make it on his own is caught between the worlds of the East and West which is ultimately exactly where he wants to be.

As a director Peter Bogdanovich never got a better performance from an actor than he does from Ben Gazzara in Saint Jack. If it weren’t for the horrific and untimely death of Dorothy Stratten, Bogdanovich’s style may have continued to move further into this direction. There’s something very John Huston-esque in the way Bogdanovich pits his charming tough guy lead against an exoticized cultural backdrop. Huston had Mexico, Bogdanovich had Singapore.